I had a very successful lesson today improvising around the pentatonic scale.  What I find works is when you put improvising at the end of a scheme of work.  The Year 3 children had all learned how to sing and play the Chinese song Molihua (Jasmine Flower) on tuned percussion instruments.  They had learned the melody by rote and by reading it through the notation.  Some had played without annotation, others had written the letter names of the notes themselves (I don’t do this for them anymore!)

They all knew what a scale was, what a pentatonic scale was, and what notes to take off on their xylophones to play a pentatonic scale.  They had also been assessed on their ability to play Molihua and their performances were videoed and shown to their parents at parents’ evening (parents were really happy with this as they could see exactly how well their children were doing).  I had also given the Year 3’s a pretty tricky test, that they revised for using a knowledge organiser, most of whom got over 20/25.

So when it came to improvising the children had both knowledge and skills and didn’t need to think too hard about the content so they could focus on the skill of improvising.  I told the children what improvising meant and how it wasn’t about just playing any old thing.  I also explained that the best improvisers knew all their scales and used the scales to make music.  We all agreed we knew the pentatonic scale well and I modeled the improvising task with another pupil with all the class watching.  We both played Molihua and then I said her name and she improvised and then we both came back with the melody.  I wondered if I should bring in the term “rondo” but thought that was a word I could save for another time.  Improvising was enough for this lesson!

We then got the instruments out and I played the piano to accompany the children.  Everyone played the Molihua melody and everyone got a chance to improvise.  I didn’t spend much time on working on how to improvise really well – today was a lesson to just have a go and to be unafraid of creating music as you play.

I think the reason this lesson worked was because the improvisation part comes at the end of the scheme.  I also think this is a good model for any composition work that we do in Primary School.  Composition and improvisation needs to come after listening and performance.  Music teachers often bring in these tasks way too soon and what ends up is a free for all devoid of thinking, planning and dare I say it, creativity.  If you are doing a composition task in the first lesson of a scheme or at the start of a lesson it is probably not a great idea as you really need to have knowledge and skills to create music well.

This lesson could lead in nicely to a composition lesson on pentatonic scales but I have decided not to because we are going to return to pentatonic scales in Year 4 where we will revisit the learning in Year 3 and develop it into not just being about Chinese music but pentatonic music all around the world.  I will use some more challenging melodies like “Arirang” from Korea and “Amazing Grace” and we will develop our improvising into composition with a focus on how to craft a melody.




The Orchestra

The Orchestra is alive with strange creatures called musicians
Who lurk behind a music stand and study compositions
Their hours of sitting motionless require clinical physicians
And they suffer from tinnitus from the adverse noise conditions
They perform in frosty church halls, no need to make predictions
The truth is that their feet rot and need to hire pediatricians
Listen now as I go through the sectional positions
And explain how this organism has come to its fruition

The percussionists all pretend that they are incredible magicians
Who can play a hundred instruments and are skilled in demolition
They play their little drums like soldiers with unlimited ammunition
And bang and crash like toddlers without social inhibitions
They count almost audibly to show that they have mastered addition
But most the time they joke about crazy American politicians
If you meet this awful tribe avoid their coalition
Or you’ll end up being visited by the Spanish Inquisition

Why the brass are in the orchestra is a mystery of tradition
They should be in a marching band or scouting expedition
They are very contrary and love to be in opposition
When other instruments are playing soft they roar in loud sedition
They are the first to leave the concert and in the intermission
And have a considerable appetite for alcohol acquisition
Spend no time with these hedonists, there’s no need for definition
The brass will make you wish for the return of prohibition

The woodwind are a pain as most require transposition
The flutes are the exception but are annoying aestheticians
They all believe they’re amazing and revel in renditions
Of ornithological, ornamental birdsong emissions
They like to discuss the merits of different scored editions
And talk of recapitulation and sonata form exposition
If you want to be a know-it-all and a cultural patrician
Join the woodwind union – if you pass their hard audition

The section of the orchestra with the most adverse competition
Is the strings with their hierarchy that shows their grave ambition
The violins see advancement up the ranks as their very holy mission
Yet no one knows what a viola is, they are always an omission
The cellos think they’re the embodiment of an instrument beautician
And basses bore us all with speeches from the European Union commission
Don’t even try to buy a harp, they cost half a million
Just avoid all the strings – and campaign for their abolition

The Orchestra is an unruly beast, they must be treated with suspicion
They should all listen carefully and not speak without permission
Instrumentalists think they’re clever, full of very wise erudition
They fancy themselves as philosophers – as Hegelian dialecticians
They need to know who is the boss, and must bow in recognition
That the conductor is the greatest so fall in subdued submission
So now my friends it is time to give my final admonition
Obey the baton for it’s wielded by the masterful tactician


The Chief Inspector of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, has released this paper.  It is refreshing to know that the focus of OFSTED is going to be the curriculum, as from my experience it has been thoroughly neglected in Music.  Much of this is due to the vast majority of music educationalists being constructivists.  If you have a philosophy that students construct their own learning, then  you can end up without any sense of curriculum unless it is completely underpinned by skills.  But in such a curriculum you could end up with students not studying anything before the Year 2000.  According to OFSTED, there is an attitude prevalent in many schools that classical music is a no-go area for students.  Point 18 of their report into the curriculum says “Classical music, as a serious component of the curriculum, was treated as a step too far in most of the primary and secondary schools surveyed, at least until Key Stage 4. It was felt by teachers and leaders to be too difficult or inaccessible for pupils.”  This is one reason that we need to think very clearly about what is taught as well as what is learned.  Most constructivists would be horrified that the curriculum could be narrowed by their philosophy.  But I have certainly come across some of the attitudes mentioned in this report and we need to take it seriously that there are music teachers and school leaders that do not think content matters.

The National Curriculum for Music in England and Wales is incredibly short – primary takes up less than a page of A4.  Some teachers like this as there is freedom to develop it any way they want.  The problem is that many schools can take this to mean that music is not important and can be covered by assemblies, a nativity and a summer concert.  To counter this we should be talking about curriculum content.  If we specify at least some of the content then it is more likely that this will be taught.  And we all know that what gets taught is what is assessed.  So we should be making curriculum content that can be learned, memorized and tested.  The “t” word is very unfashionable in music education and I am not looking for a Music SAT.  But low stakes testing in Music could actually result in content being delivered and pupils knowing more about the wonderful world of music that we often take for granted.  

One way to think about content is through the use of knowledge organizers.  These are a one A4 page of content that we are studying this term.  They need to be clear, concise and testable.  I have written one for Year 2 and one for Year 3 and I will be publishing them soon.  I have handed them out to the pupils this week and the class teachers have been given a copy.  I will see how the pupils respond and whether it has made any difference around Christmastime when we finish the unit.  However, the real test will be whether they can remember it before we leave for the summer holiday.  Can they retain the information over time?  Surely, that is one of the aims we should have for music education – that what they learn is stored robustly in each child’s long term memory.  Do children know the difference between a clarinet and a bassoon?  Do they know the names of at least two composers from the 18th century?  Can they name some early Blues musicians?  

Please don’t think that I am against musical skills, I certainly am not.  But I am very skeptical about constructivism.  I think teachers should be setting the curriculum – not the students. I don’t have any problems with the notion that the teacher is an authority and that some content is more valuable than others.  And the person best placed to make these judgements is the teacher, not the child.

Do you need a degree to train to be a teacher?

The latest education controversy concocted by the Department for Education concerns a possible new apprenticeship route to becoming a teacher.  At its worst it is a quick way to get more cheap teachers into the profession, deskill it and ease out expensive staff in order to take on more trainees.  I would love to say that schools themselves would not be party to this but sadly I know of at least one headteacher who would do all three in pursuit of saving money.  As for the DfE, it doesn’t seem to be the most ethical organisation on the planet by a long way.  However, if this is a genuine attempt to get those experienced middle-aged teaching assistants that we all know are fantastic into teaching through on-the-job training, then we must not dismiss the idea out of hand.  We all know some of these TA’s and we all know they would be a great asset to the profession.  And most of us sympathize that they haven’t got a degree because life got in the way and they simply don’t have the time or finances to take three years out of paid work to qualify as a teacher.  A work apprenticeship is exactly what is needed here.

Nonetheless, I think it does matter what qualifications you have, dependent on what subject and phase you are teaching.  If you teach A-Level you should definitely have a degree prior to teaching the course.  Additionally, I would expect it to be a degree in the subject you are teaching, which sadly is not the case in many schools today.  I would relax a bit more on this criteria for GCSE and Key Stage 3.  For Early Years, Key Stage 1 and 2, I really don’t think a subject specific degree is that essential as these are more generalist.  I don’t want to hammer traditional degrees but I do think we should be more enthusiastic about vocational qualifications.  The apprenticeship model actually suits teaching well – the best training I ever had was when I work-shadowed two excellent Music teachers on their travels when I was working peripatetically.  I had completed a four year degree and a PGCE, yet I felt very unprepared for teaching.  If I’d had that sort of on-the-job mentoring for four years instead of sitting in the university library, I would be a much better teacher and wouldn’t have got into as much debt.  Yes, there would have been many experiences that I would have lost from not going to university including the societies I was involved in, the friends that I made and the new places that I was discovering.  But it is easy to say “I was privileged to go to uni so I should not deny others the opportunity” without thinking of the alternatives.  I know an accountant my age who obtained his profession through an apprenticeship.  He is not having to complain about not getting on the housing ladder and about huge debts like many traditional university graduates.  He may feel a reverse kind of privilege – perhaps we are the underprivileged who have been sold a lie that a traditional degree was worth the cost.  

I think we get overly worried about the process to become trained as a teacher.  There are always arguments over this provider and that, the GTP v PGCE v Teach First etc.  There does seem to be some snobbery over the means of becoming a teacher and an odious attitude that other professions should have vocational training, but not our own.  One commenter on Twitter says it was like an educational nimbyism, and I understand how he feels it is hypocritical.  However, it is not hypocritical to defend teaching being an academic career and as long as we are not confusing the means to become a teacher with the ends of the qualification, I think we can allow more variety in establishing new entry routes.  With the shortage of teachers it is essential that we try.

My main caveat is that we must not advise people to go down this route if it leads to an inferior qualification.  For example, if you want to work as a teacher or teaching assistant in China, you must have a degree.  I also know someone who has completed the International PGCE and the school she applied for would not accept it because they would only accept those with a BEd or a traditional PGCE.  This new vocational apprenticeship route must be as rigorous and prestigious as any other.  

Finally, would I want my daughter schooled by an apprentice trainee teacher?  I think we all feel the same way about trainee dentists.  Let’s just acknowledge that everyone has to start somewhere, teaching is a wonderful career and support all our new teachers, regardless of how they got there.

In the Desert

This song is for my new school’s Year 1 Musical “Pirates of the Pearl River”.  Four sets of pirates travel to the mountains, the rainforest, the cave and the desert before finding the treasure together on a tropical island.  The song is very simple and perhaps the lyrics are a little bit harsh as there is probably more to the desert than rocks and sand.  But after living their for a year last year I have to say that the desert is not the romantic sand dunes I wished for but more like a boring cat litter tray where no-one picks up their rubbish.

Anyway, if you need a simple song about the desert, here it is!




One of my main worries about any musical education is the lack of knowledge concerning basic instruments.  It seems to be expected that children will just know instruments or learn them by cultural osmosis.  Explicitly teaching what each instrument looks like, what it sounds like, what it is called and how you spell it correctly is not fashionable in our collective attempts to give a creative musical experience in class music lessons.  I have heard people say it’s not important if children don’t know the difference between a glockenspiel and a xylophone but I beg to differ – that’s the route to low expectations and ignorance.  

I deal with this by having a weekly instrument of the week for Key Stage 1 where I explicitly teach each instrument of the orchestra and then moving on to world instruments and band instruments, always at the beginning of each lesson as the children are entering the room.  In Key Stage 2, I give video examples of small groups of instruments for children to recognize and towards the end of Key Stage 2, I will show examples of orchestras, swing bands and other groups that use multi-instrumental ensembles.  This all means that as children enter the music room they encounter good quality, well performed music.  I also try to bring an instrument in, so my Year 1 pupils have all tried to play a violin, blow a flute mouthpiece and try to buzz a note out of a trumpet.  I find when they try to do it themselves, they more readily remember the instrument, its name and its sound.  

Our aim must be to get all children to know all orchestral instruments, the families, a good range of percussion, some world instruments, the parts of a drum kit and the names of various ensembles including what makes up a jazz band, a rock band, a concert band, an orchestra by the end of Key Stage 2.  If we can do this then it will be a great foundation for learning in the secondary phase.  If you think this is ambitious, think if we have 30 lessons a year and six years to teach a primary pupil music, why can’t they remember about thirty instruments in one hundred and eighty hours of tuition?

New head, new rules

I don’t normally comment on matters outside Music teaching but the recent controversy concerning a certain school in Great Yarmouth has made me think hard about leadership and how you would go about starting a new culture, especially in a place where the culture has been the complete opposite of the new regime.

Basically, when the new headteacher of this school in Great Yarmouth cofounded a free school in London a few years previously he was able to start a school culture from scratch as there was no existing school.  With fantastic colleagues and a clear vision, they were able to create an outstanding, trailblazing school.  The headteacher’s new school is a completely new kettle of fish.  How do you start a new culture in a school which already exists?

I wish him well, I really do.  Everything I have been told about this man is that he is a fantastic teacher, a good leader but it does seem that he can go a little bit too far when it comes to school rules and has been a little bit clumsy when communicating to parents and the public.  A little bit of context – the Great Yarmouth school has had poor prior results, not great discipline and an unfavorable OFSTED report.  So he wants to tackle the problems and his solution is something that most teachers would accept – making sure all students are in their chair in class, not out in the corridors messing around and ensuring that children are listening to the teacher, being polite and respectful and working hard.  Where this headteacher has come unstuck is he is actually spelling out what this may mean in practice and how serious he is.  Hence the talk about sick buckets in classrooms and stopping children from going to the toilet whenever they like.  By spelling all of this out he is making enemies and my fear is that he will be forced out with a big cheer and the school going back to failing its students.  There is nothing progressive about poor standards of work, results and behaviour and the nastiness from some sections of the teaching profession towards this man is absolutely appalling.  

There are some rules that I personally think are a bit harsh.  There are some which would have resulted in me getting a detention if I was at school.  But staying in your seat, listening to the teacher, getting your work done on time and walking around the school politely and sensibly is not unreasonable and the headteacher has every right to enforce the school rules.  I hope there will not be screaming and shouting and the humiliation of students (and parents) but in the end, I do not work at a tough, failing school and how you would turn one around is certainly not in my imagination.  I guess the big question would be whether I would send my daughter to this school.  And the answer is I simply would have moved house into a catchment with a good school.  But if in five years he has achieved his aim and the school has been turned around, then I would be much more willing to think about it.  Call me names for my unsupportive attitude but I certainly would not be the only one who is unprepared to send my children to an unsuccessful school.  This is why we need to sometimes take a step back and realize that the skill-set for such an upheaval is completely different from leading an already decent school.  

What I find interesting is that it is the motivation behind the rules that points favorably or unfavorably to the leader.  I know some terrible leaders who have many rules which are there to make themselves feel powerful and to have complete control over students, staff and parents.  But other leaders have many rules because they genuinely believe that it will benefit their students and turn their school around.  The mistake that many have made concerning this school in Great Yarmouth is that they think the new headteacher is on a power trip.  One way we can guess his motivations is by looking at his past actions.  Another is to see how he will treat his staff and what autonomy he will give them to do their jobs.  And from the words of his old students and colleagues we need to give him a chance because they think the world of him and believe he is genuinely trying his best to improve this school.

Will he succeed?  Sadly, I am going to say “no”.  I don’t think he has much chance.  I think he will be very successful starting new schools from scratch but to change an existing culture is incredibly challenging.  You can expel a dozen students and enforce rules but you cannot change hearts that readily.  The reason his old school was successful is they had the buy in from students, parents and teachers from day one.  I really hope I am wrong but we ought to wish him and his new school well rather than wanting him sacked for doing something that most of us would not even attempt to try. 

So the question is when do we speak out?  So many teachers have condemned this man, his rules and the way he has communicated them.  They say he is unfit to run a school.  That he should not be in the teaching profession.  That he is a right-wing fascist.  In the end his biggest sin is rather than say something like “all students must sit in their seat”, he’s detailing the excuses that some children make for leaving it and why he thinks these are unacceptable and what he will do about it if you try to take him on.  I wish I could say that kids would not do this but we all know that in tough schools there are children who will go completely out of the way to challenge authority and do as little work as possible.  He has chosen to not just say the easy things but explain what he is going to do.  Some of this may be bluster or hyperbole.  We don’t really know and he might not know himself how far he is going to go if he suspects a child with medical problems is really trying to skive off and play Candy Crush on their secret, illegal mobile phone on the toilet.  I think the only time we have a right to criticize is if this headteacher breaks the law or we suspect he is about to break it.

Let’s give a big thumbs up to all those teachers working in tricky circumstances and try to support each other, even when we disagree.  

The National Anthem

I have just finished working in Kuwait and I am reflecting on the successes and weaknesses that I encountered in this very large British international school.

One of the biggest successes was the National Anthem Bands.  By law, every child in Kuwait must sing the Kuwaiti National Anthem before starting lessons.  We went one better and got many children to play the national anthem on their instruments.  This meant that every child brought their instrument to school every single day and practiced at least something.  A few teachers got this to become a more dedicated practice time and one managed to get the carpentry team to install outdoor music stands so woodwind pupils could practice.  The band was also something that the children could join when they had made some good progress on their First Access instrumental courses in recorders, violins, clarinets and trumpets.

I wish in the UK we could emulate this and go back fifty years and insist all children sing the National Anthem of Great Britain.  However, it would probably end up in riots in Scotland, Ireland and Wales so I can understand why it will never happen!  Nonetheless, it is getting worrying that so many children don’t know the words of their own National Anthem.  It seems the only ones who do are football fanatics.   

If we could emulate this idea from Kuwait, I am absolutely certain it would improve performing standards in Britain.  There are instruments in the UK and there are children who have the desire to play them but we need to provide simple ensembles that don’t take up too much time as children are very busy with many different activities through the week.  The biggest fear is it would become yet another chore for music teachers to grind through.  But the principle is a good one.  Every child bringing their instrument into school every day and practicing every single morning.  Most music teachers would be delighted with that.

And if they can do it in Kuwait, why can’t we?